Wesley Clark: In the Tradition of Generals Who Make Peace

Gen. Wesley K. Clark’s entry into the Democratic presidential contest has delighted voters opposed to the administration’s war policies and hungry for a candidate with national security bona fides. A four-star general who led the war in Kosovo, Clark has also been an outspoken critic of President Bush’s foreign policies.

Clark’s detractors, however, offer this warning to his Democratic fans: most Americans have supported Bush’s post-9/11 adventurism. Clark’s epaulets, these skeptics insist, won’t make his dovishness any more palatable to the public.

Yet to dismiss Clark’s prospects for electoral success as a liberal delusion is to misread the historic allure of military officers as presidential contenders. Generals who have become president (there were ten, six of them notable as commanders) have usually succeeded by presenting themselves as bearers not of war but of peace. They do so because of the public’s long-standing ambivalence about military heroes in politics.

Americans, to be sure, expect their leaders to be tough. During both the Cold War and the post-9/11 period, politicians often won followings with bellicose and chauvinistic rhetoric.

But the American appetite for militarism has limits. The colonial struggle against British occupation forces in the Revolutionary era instilled an enduring skepticism about permanent armies, and the Founders pointedly placed the armed forces under civilian authority. Remote from Europe, the United States sought, in its idealized self-portrait, to be a peace-loving country. (The wars against Native Americans were left out of the story.)

Accommodating such ambivalence, generals have taken to emulating Cincinnatus of ancient Rome, who famously heeded the call to leave his farm and defend the city, only to return voluntarily to his plow after victory had been secured. In his own day, George Washington was explicitly likened to that Roman general: Having led the Revolutionary army, Washington retired to Mount Vernon, then answered the call once more when the new nation needed a president.

Largely because of Washington’s example, other office-seeking generals cast themselves as nonpolitical public servants. They disavowed all personal ambition and entered politics as if bowing to public demand.

In 1840, William Henry Harrison, a hero of the Indian wars, professed selfless public service as the rationale for his candidacy, as did the Mexican War veteran Zachary Taylor in 1848. So a century later did Dwight D. Eisenhower, the victorious commander of the Allies in Europe during World War II, who cultivated an aura of non-partisanship so skillfully that even the Democrats tried in vain to get him to bear their standard.

In this respect, Clark has played the Cincinnatus role beautifully. For a long time (maybe longer than was plausible), he refused to identify with either party, outing himself as a Democrat just this month. And he has appeared to revel in the “Draft-Clark” outfits that have emerged at the grassroots, as if he were capitulating to public demand.

Beyond a reluctance for politics, the Cincinnatus archetype also entails a disavowal of warmongering. Here, too, Clark is following the tradition of generals entering high office. Although Ulysses S. Grant won fame during the Civil War for his ferocity, his battlefront glory lent him credibility as a peacemaker. After the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox, he squelched his soldiers’ gloating, telling them that “the rebels are our countrymen again.” In accepting the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1868, he concluded, “Let us have peace.”

Similarly, Eisenhower pledged just before the 1952 election to go to Korea, to make peace in a frustrating and demoralizing war. No one dared call the hero of World War II soft on communism. In contrast, his rival, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, could never subordinate his martial persona to a softer peacetime profile, and he never advanced in the political arena.

Like Ike and Grant, Clark has the authority to denounce a misbegotten military adventure. His experience can assure voters that restraint in his case will not mean an abdication of America’s global leadership role.

Whether Clark sinks or soars on the campaign trail will hinge on many variables. But he has historical precedents on his side. He doesn’t seem to hunger for the presidency, and — just as important — neither does he hunger for war.

Historian David Greenberg is a visiting scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass.